I’m a Believer

19 April, 2014 at 17:21 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment

 

Old love never rusts …

Ensam i Berlin

19 April, 2014 at 09:47 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment

ensam-i-berlin-2Hans Falladas roman Ensam i BerlinJeder stirbt für sich allein i original — är precis som föregångaren Hur skall det gå med Pinnebergs? en enastående bra roman. Den tyska nazismens förtyck och brutalitet skildras här i all sin nakna hemskhet. Så vad kan vara bättre än att få detta mästerverk i påskgåva? I en litterärt bevandrad familj riskerar man aldrig långa helger utan intressant förströelse. Så nu får den n:te omläsningen av Röda rummet och Martin Bircks ungdom anstå ytterligare några dagar …

Thomas Piketty and fierce critiques of brilliantly silly economic models

18 April, 2014 at 12:07 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

The French economist Thomas Piketty arrived in Washington, D.C., on Sunday for a week of talks at some of the nation’s leading policy-research centers but which might as well have been billed as a victory lap up the East Coast. The English translation of Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, a formidably rigorous, 700-page history of wealth, out barely five weeks, had just made The New York Times’s best-seller list. But even before it appeared, on the strength of a handful of advance reviews and a surge of Internet buzz, Piketty’s transformation was complete: from respected researcher on income distribution to ranking heavyweight, a scholar who, armed with reams of data and charts—and, unusual for an economist, a gilded tongue—proposed to upend decades of mainstream wisdom on inequality though an unprecedented analysis of the past.

wrong-tool-by-jerome-awApparently bedazzled by the book’s arguments, few reviewers mentioned its assault on the field. Yet Piketty’s disdain is unmistakable, the lament of a scholar long estranged from the mainstream of his profession. “For far too long,” he writes, “economists have sought to define themselves in terms of their supposedly scientific methods. In fact, those methods rely on an immoderate use of mathematical models, which are frequently no more than an excuse for occupying the terrain and masking the vacuity of the content. Too much energy has been and still is being wasted on pure theoretical speculation without a clear specification of the economic facts one is trying to explain or the social and political problems one is trying to resolve.”

In one sense, critiques of the discipline are nothing new. Economists, a voluble lot, seem to occupy a disproportionate amount of the blogosphere, and spend a good deal of their time there engaged in heated methodological debate. In a high-profile spat in March, Paul Krugman and Lars P. Syll, an economist at Malmö University, in Sweden, posted rival views of IS-LM (for investment saving-liquidity money), a model that has been a mainstay of macroeconomic theory for decades. Syll dismissed IS-LM as a “brilliantly silly gadget.” Krugman defended it as “a simplification of reality designed to provide useful insight into particular questions. And since 2008 it has done that job, yes, brilliantly.” (In a follow-up post, Krugman was more circumspect: “You should use models, but you should always remember that they’re models, and always beware of conclusions that depend too much on the simplifying assumptions.” )

Still, it’s one thing to trade barbs online, and quite another to present your magnum opus as an act of methodological sedition. Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Piketty makes clear, is his notion of what economics scholarship should look like: combining analyses of macro (growth) and micro (income distribution) issues; grounded in abundant empirical data; larded with references to sociology, history, and literature; and sparing on the math. In its scale and scope, the book evokes the foundational works of classical economics by Ricardo, Malthus, and Marx—to whose treatise on capitalism Piketty’s title alludes. The sizable recent literature on various aspects of inequality earns barely a mention. “There is a fair amount of empirical work out there,” says James K. Galbraith, of the University of Texas at Austin who studies wage inequality and who published one of the few skeptical reviews of the book to date, in Dissent. “He has a tendency to make deferential reference to mainstream thinkers while ignoring the critiques that already exist.”

Whether Capital in the Twenty-first Century survives its spectacular debut to become an inspiration for future scholarship—let alone future policy—will depend in part on how Piketty’s data and interpretation hold up over time … Even detractors agree that the World Top Incomes Database, which Piketty and his collaborators have assembled at the Paris School of Economics, where he now teaches, is invaluable. Covering 30 countries to date, it is by far the largest international database on inequality.

Less likely to endure is Piketty’s remedy for inequality: a progressive global wealth tax on fortunes over 1-million euros.

In Washington, a policy town, remedies were what many of Piketty’s commentators wanted to talk about, and they tended to dismiss his proposal, while taking the opportunity to promote their own ideas instead. Even Piketty concedes that enforcing a global wealth tax would require unprecedented levels of international cooperation and, at least in the United States, where higher taxes are widely believed to lead to lower growth, overcoming entrenched political opposition.

Emily Eakin/The Chronicle Review

Lower wages is NOT the solution

17 April, 2014 at 21:19 | Posted in Economics | 5 Comments

In connection with being awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for 2011 – Thomas Sargent, in an interview with Swedish Television, declared that workers ought to be prepared for having low unemployment compensations in order to get the right incentives to search for jobs.

This old mercantilist idea has very little support in research, since it has turned out to be exceedingly difficult to really get clear cut results of causality on the issue. However, the Swedish right-wing finance minister – Anders Borg – appreciated Sargent’s statement and declared it to be a “healthy warning” for those who wanted to increase compensation levels.

workers-wages-vsIn an article published in today’s Dagens ETC it is documented how one of Sweden’s more well-known and influential economists, Lars Calmfors, for 25 years has written out the same prescription — lower wages — for solving no matter what problem facing our economy.

Sargent’s, Borg’s and Calmfors’s view is symptomatic. As in the 1920s, more and more right-wing politicians — and some economists — suggest that lowering wages is the right medicine to strengthen the competitiveness of their faltering economies, get the economy going, increase employment and create growth that will get rid of the towering debts and create balance in the state budgets.

But, intimating that one could solve economic problems by impairing unemployment compensations and wage cuts, in dire times, should really be taken more as a sign of how low the confidence in our economic system has sunk. Wage cuts and lower unemployment compensation levels – of course – do not save neither competitiveness, nor jobs.

What is needed more than anything else in these times is stimulus and economic policies that increase effective demand.

On a societal level wage cuts only increase the risk of more people getting unemployed. To think that that one can solve economic crisis in this way is a turning back to those faulty economic theories and policies that John Maynard Keynes conlusively showed to be wrong already in the 1930s. It was theories and policies that made millions of people all over the world unemployed.

It’s an atomistic fallacy to think that a policy of general wage cuts would strengthen the economy. On the contrary. The aggregate effects of wage cuts would, as shown by Keynes, be catastrophical. They would start a cumulative spiral of lower prices that would make the real debts of individuals and firms increase since the nominal debts wouldn’t be affected by the general price and wage decrease. In an economy that more and more has come to rest on increased debt and borrowing this would be the entrance-gate to a debt deflation crises with decreasing investments and higher unemployment. In short, it would make depression knock on the door.

The impending danger for today’s economies is that they won’t get consumption and investments going. Confidence and effective demand have to be reestablished. The problem of our economies is not on the supply side. Overwhelming evidence shows that the problem today is on the demand side. Demand is – to put it bluntly – simply not sufficient to keep the wheels of the economies turning. To suggest that the solution is lower wages and unemployment compensations is just to write out a prescription for even worse catastrophes.

Microfoundations and the Ramsey model — hardly worthy of grown-ups

16 April, 2014 at 08:47 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

4703325-2So in what sense is this “dynamic stochastic general equilibrium” model firmly grounded in the principles of economic theory? I do not want to be misunderstood. Friends have reminded me that much of the effort of “modern macro” goes into the incorporation of important deviations from the Panglossian assumptions that underlie the simplistic application of the Ramsey model to positive macroeconomics. Research focuses on the implications of wage and price stickiness, gaps and asymmetries of information, long-term contracts, imperfect competition, search, bargaining and other forms of strategic behavior, and so on. That is indeed so, and it is how progress is made.

But this diversity only intensifies my uncomfortable feeling that something is being put over on us, by ourselves. Why do so many of those research papers begin with a bow to the Ramsey model and cling to the basic outline? Every one of the deviations that I just mentioned was being studied by macroeconomists before the “modern” approach took over. That research was dis missed as “lacking microfoundations.” My point is precisely that attaching a realistic or behavioral deviation to the Ramsey model does not confer microfoundational legitimacy on the combination. Quite the contrary: a story loses legitimacy and credibility when it is spliced to a simple, extreme, and on the face of it, irrelevant special case. This is the core of my objection: adding some realistic frictions does not make it any more plausible that an observed economy is acting out the desires of a single, consistent, forward-looking intelligence …

For completeness, I suppose it could also be true that the bow to the Ramsey model is like wearing the school colors or singing the Notre Dame fight song: a harmless way of providing some apparent intellectual unity, and maybe even a minimal commonality of approach. That seems hardly worthy of grown-ups, especially because there is always a danger that some of the in-group come to believe the slogans, and it distorts their work …

There has always been a purist streak in economics that wants everything to follow neatly from greed, rationality, and equilibrium, with no ifs, ands, or buts. Most of us have felt that tug. Here is a theory that gives you just that, and this
time “everything” means everything: macro, not micro. The theory is neat, learnable, not terribly difficult, but just technical enough to feel like “science.”

Robert Solow

INET — marginalizing heterodox economics rather than transforming the discipline

15 April, 2014 at 18:20 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

Big-vs-SmallIn a report published by The Association for Heterodox Economics, INET is criticized for actually marginalizing heterodox economics:

Our main concern is that the positive potential of INET is steadily being closed down. What began as recognition of fundamental problems that require fundamental change is becoming a more modest set of alterations. A sense of failure is, for all intents and purposes, being translated into a context of relative success requiring more limited changes – though these are still being seen as significant. Part of the reason that they are seen as significant is that changes from within mainstream economics do not have to be major in order to appear radical. It is our contention that heterodox economics is being marginalised in this process of ‘change’ and that this is to the detriment of the positive potential for transforming the discipline …

Marginalising heterodoxy creates problems for teaching economics as a discipline in which economists constructively disagree and can be in error. This is important because it is through a conformity that suppresses a continual and diverse critical awareness that economics becomes a dangerous discourse prone to lack of realism, complacency, and dogmatism. Marginalising heterodoxy reduces the potential realisation of the different components of economics one might expect to be transformed as part of a project to transform the discipline …

Highlighting the points we have may seem like simple griping by a special interest. But there is far more involved than that. Remember we are talking about the failure of a discipline and how it is to be transformed. The marginalisation of heterodoxy has real consequences. In a general sense the marginalisation creates manifest problems that hamper teaching economics in a plural and critically aware way. For example, the marginalisation promotes a Whig history approach. It is also important to bear in mind that heterodoxy is a natural home of pluralism and of critical thinking in economics … Unlike the mainstream, heterodoxy does not have to be made compatible with pluralism and with critical thinking; it is predisposed to these and is already a resource for their development. So, marginalising heterodoxy really does narrow the base by which the discipline seeks to be renewed. That narrowing contributes to restricting the potential for good teaching in economics (including the profoundly important matter of how economists disagree and how they can be in error).

Därför har den svenska järnvägen havererat

15 April, 2014 at 13:45 | Posted in Politics & Society | Leave a comment

urNu krävs det en kriskommission för att rädda de svenska järnvägarna och den svenska tågtrafiken, skriver yours truly och fem andra experter i Dagens Samhälle.

Sweden hit by deflation — a sad and worrying reminder of the impotence of mainstream economics

14 April, 2014 at 22:24 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

irvingSweden is according to new statistics from  Statistics Sweden in a state of deflation. The inflation rate was -0.6 percent in March.

To a large extent the deflation is caused by tight monetary and fiscal policies  pursued by Sweden’s  Central Bank and the government. With a very defensive fiscal policy and a targeted inflation rate set at a very low level, real inflation has during the last 2-3 years been very close to zero, and now even negative. Another consequence of the austere fiscal and monetary policies is that overall unemployment is still at almost 9 % and youth unemployment close to 26 %.

This is deeply worrying.

So yours truly thought he should give the Swedish Fed and the Swedish finance minister - Anders Borg –  a suggestion for reading …

Zoltan Pozsnar and Paul McCulley have written an absolutely splendid essay on what a liquidity trap means and why mainstream neoclassical economics has nothing to offer in way of solving the problems that it brings along – and why it is so important to get hold of the insights that Fisher, Keynes, Minsky and Krugman have given us on debt-deflation processes and liquidity traps:

A liquidity trap is a circumstance in which the private sector is deleveraging in the wake of enduring negative animal spirits caused by the bursting of joint asset price and credit bubbles that leave privatesector balance sheets severely damaged. In a liquidity trap the animal spirits of the private sector cannot be revived by a reduction in short-term interest rates because there is no demand for credit. This effectively means that conventional monetary policy does not work in a liquidity trap …

Deleveraging can be rational for an individual household. It can be rational for an individual corporation. It can be rational for an individual country. However, in the aggregate it begets the paradox of thrift1: what is rational at the microeconomic level is irrational at the community, or macroeconomic, level.

This is not to say that the private sector should not deleverage. It has to. It is a part of the economy’s healing process and a necessary first step toward a self-sustaining economic recovery.

However, deleveraging is a beast of a burden that capitalism cannot bear alone. At the macro level, deleveraging must be a managed process: for the private sector to deleverage without causing a depression, the public sector has to move in the opposite direction and re-lever by effectively viewing the balance sheets of the monetary and fiscal authorities as a consolidated whole.

Fiscal austerity does not work in a liquidity trap and makes as much sense as putting an anorexic on a diet. Yet, “diets” are the very prescriptions that fiscal austerians have imposed (or plan to impose) in the U.S., U.K. and Eurozone. Austerians fail to realize, however, that everyone cannot save at the same time and that in liquidity traps, the paradox of thrift and depression are fellow travelers that are functionally intertwined.

Historically, austerity has only worked when accompanied by monetary easing – where wealth effects and stronger private demand for credit helped offset the effects of fiscal austerity – and/or a weaker currency – which helped steal others’ demand.

In a liquidity trap, however, austerity cannot work because monetary policy is neither functioning correctly nor able offset lost demand, and weak currencies work only at a time of strong global demand and only for individual countries, not for several major countries at one time. Imposing austerity without potential offsets and at a time of weak global aggregate demand is deflationary, which makes deleveraging much harder, balance sheet repair much slower and recovery much less likely to achieve. In a liquidity trap, governments have no logical option but to borrow and to invest.

How could governments borrow more if government debt is also a problem everywhere? Would it not be irresponsible to increase borrowing at a time of record government debt levels? Fiscal austerians are quick to invoke age-old textbook orthodoxies: (1) that additional borrowing will be too much for future generations to handle, citing the law of Ricardian equivalence; (2) that increased borrowing will crowd out private sector borrowing and will most likely delay the economic recovery; and (3) that bond investors will stop buying and send yields higher.

However, in the topsy-turvy world of liquidity traps, these textbook orthodoxies do not apply, and acting irresponsibly relative to orthodoxy by increasing borrowing will do more good than harm. Austerians argue that reducing deficits and putting nations’ fiscal houses in order will help growth through confidence. However, Ricardian equivalence does not work in reverse! It is not confidence, but Godley’s tyranny of arithmetic that matters: someone simply has to borrow and invest to fill missing demand.

Crowding out, overheating and rising interest rates are also not likely to be a problem as there is no competition for funds from the private sector. For evidence, look no further than the impact of government borrowing on long-term interest rates in the U.S. during the Great Depression, or more recently, Japan …

Held back by concerns borne of these orthodoxies, however, governments are not spending with passionate purpose. They are victims of intellectual paralysis borne of inertia of dogma that, in the present circumstances, do not apply. As a result, their acting responsibly relative to orthodoxy and going forth with austerity may drag economies down the vortex of deflation and depression.

The importance of fiscal expansion and the impotence of conventional monetary policy measures in a liquidity trap have profound implications for the conduct of central banks. This is because in a liquidity trap, the fat tail risk of inflation is replaced by the fat tail risk of deflation. In turn, the fatness of the deflation tail is a function of the government’s willingness and ability to pump-prime, i.e. to borrow and spend.

Added 19 April: Paul Krugman comments on the Swedish situation.

Lisa Gerrard

12 April, 2014 at 14:28 | Posted in Varia | 3 Comments

 

Flipism

12 April, 2014 at 11:33 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

We investigate the possibility that a decision-maker prefers to avoid making a decision and instead delegates it to an external device, e.g., a coin flip. In a series of experiments our participants often choose stochastically dominated lottery between outcomes, contradicting most theories of choice such as expected utility …

images-3In situations where decision-making is hard, a possible procedural preference arises: the decision-maker may wish for the decision to be taken away from herself. Her cognitive or emotional cost of deciding may outweigh the bene fits that arise from making the optimal choice. For example, the decision-maker may prefer not to make a choice without having sufficient time and energy to think it through. Or, she may not feel entitled to make it. Or, she may anticipate a possible disappointment about her choice that can arise after a subsequent resolution of uncertainty. Waiving some or all of the decision right may seem desirable in such circumstances even though it typically increases the chance of a suboptimal outcome.

The difficulty of such preferences is that they are non-consequentialist and are therefore excluded by most models of choice such as expected utility. For example, flipping a coin between different choice options contradicts expected utility theory except if the decision-maker is exactly indifferent between these options. Yet people regularly do flip coins or revert to other random decision aids. More general than expected utility theory, a basic axiom of choice — stochastic dominance — postulates that whenever the decision-maker has a strict preference for one of the options, she makes the choice herself rather than delegate it to randomness.

This paper discusses preferences that allow for coinflipping. It then presents several data sets, experimental and field-empirical, where stochastic dominance is violated by decision makers.

Nadja Dwenger   Dorothea Cabler   Georg Weizsäcker

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